You may never have heard of Lionel Messi, but to millions of soccer fans the 28-year-old Argentinian is a superstar. A forward for FC Barcelona, which has a larger social-media following than any other sports team in the world, as well as for Argentina’s national team, Messi holds all kinds of goal-scoring records and is considered by some observers to be the best player ever in the history of the sport.
He’s also, as it turns out, a useful stooge for none other than Ali Bongo, “president” of Gabon, whom we wrote about here a couple of months back. Bongo’s dad was “president” of the small country on the west coast of Central Africa from 1967 to 2009, and Bongo has been in charge ever since the old man shuffled off this mortal coil. As we noted in July, the Bongo family has made an art out of systematic, institutionalized corruption, treating the country’s cash as its own and using it to purchase dozens of luxury residences around the world, plus whole fleets of cars, boats, and planes, while the average Gabonese citizen squeaks by on $12 a day.
But Bongo’s shameless, large-scale embezzlement is only the most benign of his offenses. In recent years, as it turns out, many Gabonese children have been the victims of a practice that seems almost too terrible to be believe: they’re kidnapped, ritually murdered, and then cannibalized by members of the nation’s elite in the belief that this barbaric act will, by some supernatural means, bring them even greater wealth and power. It’s widely believed that Bongo himself is behind these twisted ritual crimes. In any event, Bongo’s government has refused to investigate them.
Enter Messi, who, as it happens, is an “ambassador” for UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, in addition to having his own charity, which focuses on “access to education and health care for vulnerable children.” In July, construction of a new soccer stadium in Gabon – which is being built for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, to be hosted by Gabon – began with a cornerstone-laying ceremony at which Messi was the guest of honor. Messi reportedly was paid €3.5 million for showing up at the event, although both Argentina and Gabon have denied that he was paid anything.
In any event, he went. In addition to laying the cornerstone for the stadium, he paid a visit to a hospital and took part in the opening of a Bongo-owned restaurant. And throughout the visit, according to the U.S.-based Human Rights Foundation (HRF), he “displayed enthusiastic support” for Bongo’s regime – a PR coup for Bongo and, as HRF observed, a blow to the credibility of Messi’s foundation. There’s no indication that this UNICEF “ambassador” said a single word, at any point during his stay in Gabon – every step of which was covered extensively by state-owned television – about his host’s refusal to investigate the ritual murder of children.